The peril of potholes: planning ahead for longer life roads

March 21, 2023

The perennial issue of potholes finds itself in the spotlight again following the results of the ALARM survey published by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) today, which reports that local authority highway teams in England and Wales only received around two-thirds of what they needed to stop our local roads from further deterioration. In addition, that more than £14 billion is now needed to fix the backlog* of carriageway repairs. 

Potholes are frequently cited as a leading cause of frustration for road users, with MPs traditionally receiving more correspondence relating to potholes than any other issue in their constituencies. The findings of the report highlight how a pothole is filled the equivalent of every 22 seconds, and that roads are only resurfaced on average once every 116 years – a staggering figure. At best, potholes are an inconvenience. At worst, they can cause costly damage to vehicles, and pose serious safety risks to cyclists and motorists.   

Last week’s Spring statement failed to recognise the need for change to the funding structure and amount allocated to local roads, which underpins all other local services. 

So, what can be done?  

Taking a holistic view of asset management is key to ensure our roads perform better, for longer. The ALARM survey reports 18 per cent of the network (almost 37,000 miles) already being assessed as having less than 5 years’ structural life remaining. Using the right products to patch potholes is the most straightforward short-term fix. But local authorities need the financial support to invest more resource when necessary to undertake deep reconstruction of our roads. The benefit of this is ultimately more durable and long-lasting roads and less disruptive works for local people. 

Despite the small increase in overall highway maintenance budgets reported, less is being spent on the carriageway itself. The data from the survey shows that in the last year, the gap between what local authorities received and what they said they would have needed to keep roads to their own target conditions and prevent further decline is now £1.30 billion – an increase of 20 per cent on last year’s figure and the highest reported in 28 years of successive ALARM surveys.  

The cost of fixing the backlog of carriageway repairs is reported to have increased by a further 11 per cent on last year’s record figure to a new high of £14.02 billion – the equivalent of £68,254 per mile of local road in England and Wales – and would take an average of 11 years to complete. 

Current behaviours mean that many roads across the network can expect a lifespan of eight to ten years. The reality is that we can do much better than this. By moving beyond the short-termism that determines so much of this decision making, we can create roads that will last longer and deliver more whole life costs value.

With budget restrictions and high rates of inflation, however, local councils are under significant pressure, making it difficult to get the balance right between quick fixes and long-term investment.

Where we can, we need to support local authorities and asset managers to make informed decisions on the most appropriate remediation methods to maximise durability. Whether a pothole patch or a deeper reconstruction, taking a step back to look at the bigger picture will help councils make more economical choices in the longer term. 

Let’s make the rest of 2023 the year of safe and sustainable roads, not potholes. 

For the full ALARM survey report and findings, visit:

*The backlog describes the amount that would be needed – as a one-off catch-up cost – to bring the network up to condition that would allow it to be managed cost effectively and sustainably going forward as part of a proactive asset management approach.